‘We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things which divide us’ Jo Cox MP
Labour MP Jo Cox is well remembered for her passion, commitment and service to the community. The Jo Cox Foundation has continued to highlight the issue of loneliness among different groups and work on her legacy continues with the All Party Parliamentary Group on Loneliness, the Loneliness Action Group and by the work of the Minister for Loneliness.
Loneliness is a state of mind that causes people to feel empty, alone and unwanted. It is different from being alone. Austerity has also had an impact on loneliness and research has shown that austerity has a huge influence on the loss of happiness and well-being. Homelessness and unemployment in particular takes us out of contact with others.
Health risks associated with loneliness include both mental and physical health problems, decreased memory and learning and poor decision making. Research shows growing evidence that social isolation is a risk factor for all types of addiction, including alcoholism, abuse of prescription and non-prescription drugs and gambling.
Social isolation can be both a cause and a symptom of mental health issues. Isolation itself is not a diagnosis, but it can be a symptom of depression, anxiety and phobias. Other mental health conditions that impair social interaction may also lead to isolation.
Elderly people are vulnerable to isolation and loneliness. Both Adur ans Worthing have high populations in the 65+ age group compared to the West Sussex average. This varies hugely within the areas themselves, for example in West Worthing and Goring areas the 65+ population is many times higher than in a ward such as Northbrook (although this may be partly accounted for by numbers of rest and nursing homes plus retirement complexes.)
The issue of loneliness among the elderly population was highlighted at a recent GP conference, and it was stated:
‘Loneliness and social isolation, particularly for older people, can be on a par with suffering from a chronic long-term condition’.
Research has shown that lonely people consult their GP more often, and in many cases their GP was the professional they would come into contact with most frequently. Lonely people also have a 50% increased risk of early death compared to those with good social connections – making it a comparable risk factor for early mortality to obesity. Meanwhile, nationally GPs report that they have inadequate time and resources to meet their patients’ emotional needs. A typical scenario reported in Worthing is of retired couples moving to the area, only for one person be left isolated on losing a partner. Additionally, families and friends often move away, or work long hours in order to manage financially
Substance misuse services are also noting an increase in the numbers of older clients seeking help with problematic use. Substance misuse, especially alcohol use, can also increase dramatically following a life event such as bereavement or relationship breakdown.
The physical environment is a key factor in social isolation. Worthing is a very diverse area with many types of accommodation and neighbourhoods. Heene ward has the highest population density for any ward both in Worthing and Adur: nearly two and a half times the average for Worthing. However, as stated, loneliness is not the same as being alone and the ward also accommodates a high number of residents from other countries, particularly Eastern Europe people who may feel separated, or even be in exile, from their own communities.
The area also has a very high number of flats and houses of multiple occupation which can be difficult environments for those residents suffering from problems of age, infirmity or mental health issues. It is significant that Heene has the lowest life expectancy on average of any other ward: there is an eight year gap in the average life expectancy between Heene and Offington
Loneliness and social isolation are not the exclusive preserve of the elderly and they are not something that can be treated with medication. However, there are ways to combat loneliness; as little as three positive social interactions per week can reduce the likelihood of depression. In Worthing, help and support is available via Adur and Worthing Wellbeing Hub, which includes advice on how to be active in the community. In certain GP surgeries, a new service called ‘Going Local’ is on offer to help and support people feeling low and lonely plus the charity ‘Time to Talk Befriending’ has been expanded to cover Worthing under a pilot scheme. Thanks to the legacy of Jo Cox, the problems of loneliness and social isolation are on the national agenda and are hopefully starting to be addressed in Worthing.